State of Montana Website Montana State Parks Website
Discover Montana's Ecosystems Navigation

Vegetation of the Montane Forest

Where there are mountains with more than 20" of annual precipitation, one can expect to find conifer forests. The cone-producing pines, firs and spruce trees dominate these forests. These evergreen trees, with needle-like waxy leaves, are adapted for a cold, dry, climate with a short growing season. These trees have adapted to an environment that has natural cycles of fire and insect infestation. .

Topography and climate are the two factors that most influence the growth of forests. The east, central, and southern parts of the Rockies experience cold, dry conditions, and the northwest portion of the state enjoys a more moist and cool maritime (influenced by the ocean) climate. These conditions influence the plants you can expect to find growing in our montane ecosystem.

Montane Forest Trees & Shrubs
Ponderosa Pine   Douglas-Fir
Ponderosa Pine
Ponderosa Pine
Ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa), the state tree of Montana, separates the grasslands from the Douglas-fir forests. Shrubs that grow with ponderosa are snowberry, Oregon grape, and chokecherry.
  Douglas-Fir Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) trees are typically found in the moist soils on north-facing mountain slopes. These trees can be found growing at moderate elevations up to 5,500' in the northwest, and up to 7,500' in the southern mountains. The under-story species usually growing among these trees are ninebark, snowberry, and kinnikinnick.
Lodgepole Pine   Western Larch
Lodgepole Pine
Lodgepole pine tipi
Lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta) often grows in dense stands, at elevation ranges from 3,000' to 8,500'. Its name originates from the fact that native people used these tall and straight growing trees as poles for their teepees (lodges). Lodgepole has adapted to an environment where fires are common. The cone of the lodgepole may stay unopened on the tree for years, but as soon as exposed to the heat of a fire, will open and spread seeds onto the burned soils.
  Western Larch
Western Larch
Western larch (Larix occidentalis) can be found growing from 2,000' to 7,000' in elevation in moist locations. These conifers actually lose their needles every fall just like the deciduous trees. Larch is a large, slow-growing tree that can live over 500 years.
Subalpine Fir   Aspen
Subalpine Fir Subalpine fir (Abies lasiocarpa) ranges from 3,500' to tree-line. This conifer grows in a variety of conditions including extremely cold and dry climates. It is associated with lodgepole, white pine, and spruce.   Aspen Aspen (Populus tremuloides) are usually found in moist locations along streams or in spring-fed groves near conifers. They are easily identified by their golden fall leaves. These trees are important to many kinds of wildlife from birds to elk.
Common Snowberry   Thimbleberry
Common Snowberry Common Snowberry (Symphoricarpos spp) can be found in many low to moderate elevation forests and open areas. This plant has a fruit-like berry that is white and has a waxy covering (hence the name).   Thimbleberry Thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus) gets its name from the red thimble-like fruit. This plant can be found from the grasslands up to the high elevations of the subalpine zone.
Mallow-leaf Ninebark   Woods' Rose
Mallow-leaf Ninebark Mallow-leaf ninebark (Physocarpus malvaceus) is a shrub typically found in the Ponderosa/Douglas-fir tree zone. It produces a reddish egg-shaped, berry-like fruit.   Woods's Rose Woods' rose (Rosa woodsii) is a woody shrub that produces pink flowers. These flowers mature into fruits (rose hips) that are high in vitamin C. Bears often feed on the fruits in the fall.
Creeping Oregon-grape   Saskatoon Serviceberry
Creeping Oregon-grape Creeping Oregon-grape (Mahonia repens) grows low to the ground and produces a blue, berry-shaped fruit. Its leaves stay green in the winter.   Saskatoon Serviceberry Saskatoon serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia) is a low growing deciduous shrub that can be found from the lower elevations to the subalpine. This plant produces dark purple berries.
Montane Forest Forbs
Beargrass   Western Meadowrue
Beargrass Beargrass (Xerophyllum tenax) is an evergreen, grass-like plant that produces a tall stem to which clusters of white flowers bloom in the summer. Beargrass is found throughout the montane forest up to the subalpine zone.   Western Meadowrue Western meadowrue (Thalictrum occidentale) is a member of the buttercup family and found from the foothills to the subalpine zone.
Twin Flower   Arnica
Twin Flower Twinflower (Linnaea borealis) is found under conifers and on moss covered sites from the foothills to the subalpine zone. It was named because of the two (twin) flowers produced at the end of the stems of the plant.   Arnica Arnica (Arnica spp.) is a yellow flowering plant that is found in meadows and wet places from the foothills to subalpine zone.
Montane Forest Grasses
Idaho Fescue   Elk Sedge
Idaho Fescue Idaho fescue (Festuca idahoensis) grows in conifer forests at altitudes from 5,000' to 8,000' where there is 15" to 19" of precipitation. It is an important food item for elk in the spring and summer.   Elk Sedge Elk sedge (Carex geyeri), also called Geyer's sedge, is common on moist forested and open slopes. These sedges are also found on dry meadows at moderate to high elevations.
Short Sedge   Pinegrass
Short Sedge Short sedge (Carex rossii) is found in dry to moderately moist sites where coniferous forests grow.   Pinegrass Pinegrass (Calamagrostis rubescens) is a reed-like grass that grows in open areas and under forest canopies from valley floors to the subalpine zone. This grass commonly grows where moisture is not limited, as an understory plant in open forest stands, such as ponderosa pine forests.

Wildlife use of major Montana forest habitat types

Scientists have grouped Montana forests into the following forest types, using dominant tree species as the determining characteristic: Douglas-fir, lodgepole pine, ponderosa pine, spruce-fir, western larch, Engelmann spruce, grand fir, limber pine. The Douglas-fir, lodgepole pine, and ponderosa pine forest types combined total over two-thirds of the state's forest lands.

Streams, rivers, and wet areas of the mountains provide a site for riparian plants such as aspen, cottonwood and maple. These areas are important habitats for many wildlife species.

Habitat Type Distribution in Montana Wildlife Use
Ponderosa Pine-Bluebunch Wheatgrass Widespread, driest sites Deer winter range, occasional elk use.
Douglas-fir-Snowberry Common, warm slopes Moderate deer use year round, occasional elk, moose.
Douglas-fir-Ninebark Moderate to high in northwestern, west-central, and southwestern regions. Heavy big game use in winter.
Ponderosa Pine-Idaho fescue Widespread Moderate deer use year round, occasional elk, moose, deer year round, elk winter range.
Douglas-fir-Bluebunch Wheatgrass Central, west-central; warm and dry. Frequently used big game winter range.
Douglas-fir-Twinflower Major type in northwestern, westcentral, central; moist sites. Moderate big-game use year round.
Douglas-fir-dwarf huckleberry Common in northwestern, westcentral, central; warm, moist sites. Moderate big-game use.
Douglas-fir-globe huckleberry Prominent in central; cold sites. Moderate big-game use.
Subalpine fir-Clintonia Extensive in northwestern; moist, warm sites. Good big-game forage production, early successional stages.